Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Apologetics and Friendly Fire

Here is a paper I wrote up on Mormon apologetics. Not sure how I feel about it. In order to keep it within the required page count I had to leave it almost entirely conceptual. It should probably be 2-3 times longer, with a lot of examples. Pdf is here.


Apologetics and Friendly Fire

In his book Religion and Friendly Fire, D.Z. Phillips argues that contemporary philosophers of religion (or “philosophical friends of religion”) are guilty of inadvertently attacking and weakening the beliefs of Christians, whom they have been trying to defend. This happens when they rely on certain philosophical assumptions, which ultimately open up Christian beliefs for unnecessary criticisms and possible defeat. “Apologetics,” according to Phillips, “is guilty of friendly fire when it says more than it knows.”[1] A similar act of friendly fire, I believe, is occurring with Mormon apologists and their defenses of Mormon scripture. In their attempts to defend scriptures such as the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham, they are saying more than they know by assuming that the historical authenticity and religious truthfulness of these texts can be defended (and shown) through contemporary empirical methods.
In this paper, I will show that while the apologists may claim that they are not trying to “prove” the truthfulness of the scriptures, their basic method of defending the texts supports and encourages a view that the historical authenticity of these scriptures can be empirically tested and verified. Such an assumption is flawed because the scriptures as we have them today are nineteenth century English texts which cannot be read and used as ancient documents. Furthermore, because there is no clear connection to original sources for these scriptures, nor did they arise from any traditional process of translation, it would be more appropriate to understand these scriptures as revelations that are religious in nature and which may or may not reflect any ancient primary source. Because of the revelatory nature of these scriptures, the only historical context that they must have is the nineteenth-century culture and language in which they have been given. Thus, any attempt to defend the text with the apologetic assumption that they can be empirically shown to be anything more than that, “says more than it knows” and unnecessarily sets expectations and qualifications for the scriptures. Because these apologetic arguments are not just for the historicity of the texts, but for the religious truth of the scriptures, the friendly fire from these presumptuous expectations can damage the faith of believers when they are not fulfilled. The narrow intent of this paper is not to argue for or against the historical authenticity of these Mormon scriptures, nor is it meant to argue whether or not a belief in their historicity should be had by those who believe in the truthfulness of these scriptures. Rather, my intent is merely to show that the apologetic turn to empirical verifiability is ultimately misguided and potentially damaging to both the scriptures and Mormon believers.

Underlying nearly all apologetics for Mormon scripture is the assumption that the historicity of the texts can be verified using empirical methods. This assumption primarily expresses itself in two forms. On the more aggressive end there is view that the historical authenticity of the scriptures can be proven using archaeology and other tools. For example, Thomas Ferguson, one of the fathers of modern Book of Mormon apologetics, once argued that archaeological evidence in Mesoamerica would one day “constitute [a] final and complete vindication of the American prophet, Joseph Smith.”[2] On the more passive end is the stance taken by those involved with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S., now the Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship). They insist that they
are not trying to “prove” the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. . . . But we also recognize that it may be important for young people or others who wonder about these things to know that the most serious scholarly students of the Book of Mormon are led to conclusions exactly opposite those of the book's critics. Faithful scholars have turned up evidence that refutes most of the criticisms, and they have found mountains of evidence for the book's ancient origins—evidence that is rarely confronted squarely by critics.[3]

While these latter apologists explicitly state that they are not trying to prove that the Book of Mormon and other scriptures are true, their research implies that the texts should nevertheless pass empirical tests to support their historical authenticity.
This apologetic assumption can be better seen when it is examined within the context of apologists responding to criticisms of Mormon scripture. For example, the typical criticism of the Book of Mormon’s historicity goes as follows: (1) If an anachronism is present in the Book of Mormon, then the Book of Mormon is not an authentic historical text. (2) X is an anachronism. (C) Therefore, the Book of Mormon is not an authentic historical text.[4] In other words, if something in the Book of Mormon can empirically be shown to be an anachronism, then such an anachronism would disprove the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon. The apologetic response is to use empirical means to criticize the purported anachronism and thus nullify the argument. Such a response cannot prove the historicity of the text, but can only show that the critical proof does not hold. For example, a critic of the Book of Mormon might claim that domesticated barley in the Americas was not introduced until after the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere, and that therefore barley in the Book of Mormon is anachronistic and evidence that the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 7:22) is not an authentic history.[5] In response, the apologist defends the historicity of the Book of Mormon, arguing that barley is not anachronistic as there is empirical evidence of possible pre-Columbian domesticated barley in the Americas. Because domesticated barley in the Book of Mormon may not be anachronistic, then the criticism does not show that the Book of Mormon is not an authentic history.[6] While this defense does not act as a proof of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the apologist responding in this manner upholds the first premise in the argument, which implies that the Book of Mormon’s possible historicity can be verified using empirical means.
Moving beyond mere defenses against accusations of anachronisms, apologists further promote the assumption that the historicity of Mormon scripture can be verified through empirical means by arguing for empirical evidences of the scripture’s historicity. This argument acts as a modus tollens of the critics’ first premise, stating, for example, that if the Book of Mormon is historical, then the text accurately reflects and describes historical things and events.[7] This assumption is exemplified in Thomas Fergusons work to find support for the Book of Mormon’s claims in his expeditions into Mesoamerica[8] and the work of F.A.R.M.S in accumulating ancient parallels to the Book of Mormon, Book of Moses, and Book of Abraham.[9] While the apologists may or may not view their evidence as proof of the historical authenticity of the Mormon scriptures, their reasoning nevertheless arises out of, and supports, the notion that if the scriptures are translations of ancient texts, then the claims of the texts should be able to be verified through empirical means.
This apologetic assumption however is flawed in supposing that these Mormon scriptures are historical documents which can be tested. Far from being actual historical documents, these Mormon scriptures are rather supposed to be nineteenth-century “translations” of ancient texts. In and of themselves, the books of Mormon, Moses, and Abraham are nineteenth-century documents written in English (not Hebrew, Egyptian, or any other ancient language) by an American. Because of this, in order to discuss whether or not these are of ancient origin, it must first be determined if the English texts are an accurate (formal) translation of the original texts. For example, if I am given an English translation of my grandmother’s journal (originally written in Japanese and translated by my mother) and asked to verify if she accurately reported certain events concerning the fire-bombings in Tokyo, I must first verify that the English translation that I have been given is correct. Otherwise, my assessment of the journal would only be an assessment of events as reported in the English translation, and not of the events originally reported by my grandmother. If I assume that the English translation is suitable for judging the “truth” of my grandmother’s account, I could make the mistake of confusing a translation error by my mother for a misrepresented report by my grandmother. Similarly, one cannot historically assess Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century “translations” of Mormon scripture without first determining whether or not the translations are, in fact, accurate translations of the original ancient texts.
Even if we assume a priori that there are original ancient texts from which these scriptures are “translations” of, there are two major challenges confronting any attempt to determine if the translations are suitable for verifying the historical claims of the text. The first is a lack of any extant original texts to compare the translations with. If, for example, I wanted to verify my mother’s English translations of my grandmother’s Japanese journals I could turn to the original journals. With the aid of a dictionary or another skilled translator, I could verify that the translation was accurate enough to use in verifying her accounts. The problem with Mormon scripture is that, from a believer’s (and thus apologist’s) perspective, there are no presently existing original texts which could be used to verify the accuracy of Joseph Smith’s English translations. With the Book of Mormon, the golden plates were taken by an angel after the translation process was completed; with the Book of Moses, there was no original physical text to begin with; and with the Book of Abraham, apologists either claim that the later-discovered papyri either no longer include (or never actually contained) the original text of the Book of Abraham.[10] Thus, any apologetic attempt to verify the historical claims of the scriptures is already problematized by the insurmountable challenge of not having an original historical text as a primary source for authentication.
The apologist and critic may counter, however, that regardless of whether we can now verify the accuracy of the translations, the translation (of at least the Book of Mormon) was supposed to have been done by a prophet, Joseph Smith, who claimed that he had the “power to translate . . . by the power of God” (D&C 1:29) and that God himself said that the translation “is true” (D&C 17:7). From this it can be assumed that the Book of Moses and Book of Abraham were similarly translated. Because they are true translations by the power of God, then they are certainly capable of being used to verify their historic claims. It is from this assumption that the second challenge to verifying the translation of these Mormon scriptures arises, which concerns how these texts are supposed to be understood as “translations”.
The translation process for these scriptures is clearly something completely different from a traditional translation of texts from one language to another. With the latter, the process involves at least two things: an original text which is directly used as a source and a translation key or knowledge of two languages—the language of the original text and the language of the translation. For example, if I were to translate my grandmother’s journals from Japanese to English I would need both the original journals and, because I don’t speak Japanese myself, a Japanese-English dictionary to help me read the Japanese script and offer an English equivalent. The problem with calling the Mormon scriptures “translations” is that the process from which the English texts came forth did not include these two requirements. For at least the Book of Mormon and Book of Moses (and possibly the Book of Abraham), Joseph Smith did not directly use or (even have) the original texts. When translating the Book of Mormon, the “reformed Egyptian” writing on the gold plates was never directly engaged by the Prophet[11]--often the plates were covered on the table or were in another location entirely. When translating the Book of Moses, Smith did not even claim to have an original text to work with, only his own King James Bible. Also, while Smith at least seemed to believe that he was translating the Book of Abraham from the Egyptian papyri which he acquired, some apologists have argued that the resulting scriptures were not from the papyri, but from an unknown source altogether.[12] The papyri merely served as a means for revealing the text. Furthermore, not only did Smith not use the original texts, he did not have the linguistic skills or tools which are used in any standard translation. His own understanding of Hebrew and Greek were minimal at best, and at that time, the ability to translate Egyptian was held minimally by only a handful of scholars in the world—none of whom was Smith.
Without either working with original texts or standard translation practices, these Mormon scriptures are perhaps better understood as revelations and not translations. This is what clearly seems to the case with section 7 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which is purported to be something written by John the Beloved. Without an original source to work with, or any claims of language skills, this section was purely given by revelation through Joseph Smith. If the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scriptures were revealed (and not translated) in a similar manner, then the scriptures should not and cannot be treated as we might any ordinarily translated document. This is especially true when it is not entirely certain how much a revealed text relates to its purported primary text. While it is not clear how much Brigham Young knew of the process by which Joseph Smith revealed these scriptures, he seems to believe that the revealed scriptures were not necessarily strict translations, but were rather fluid adaptations made for a particular people and culture. According to Young, “When God speaks to the people, he does it in a manner to suit their circumstances and capacities. . . . Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it is now. And I venture even to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation.”[13]
As revelatory in nature, these scriptures can and should only be directly understood as texts given to the “circumstances and capacities” of nineteenth-century Americans. Any attempt by apologists to claim more than this goes beyond what can be expected from the scriptures. While certain evidences and proofs of historical authenticity might bolster the faith of believers, the underlying assumption by which these are achieved set unnecessary expectations and verifications of the texts. This is further problematized when the critical and apologetic battles for these scriptures are not just about the historical authenticity of the texts. Rather they are also about the religious truth of the scriptures. This is due to the tendency of both critics and apologists to tie the religious truthfulness of the scriptures to their historical authenticity. Many of these apologists do not just see their work as simply defending the scriptures of their historicity (as any scholar might defend any purported historical text), but rather their work is to defend against “the anti-Mormon arguments against the divine origin of the Book of Mormon”[14] and other scriptures. Implicit with this reasoning is the view that it is not only the historical authenticity of these scriptures that can be defended though empirical means, but also their “divine origin.” Thus the critic assumes that by showing the scriptures to be ahistorical, they can also show that the scriptures are not from God. The apologist, in turn, supports this reasoning by defending the scriptures divinity on the critics’ own terms. By doing so, the apologist not only places unnecessary expectations for these scriptures historicity, but sets these expectations as measures for their divinity and religious authenticity.
The conceptual problem with this reasoning is in the assumption that the divinity (or religious truthfulness) of these scriptures is tied to their historical authenticity. With this view, the Mormon believer’s testimony in the scriptures as “from God” must also be in their being authentically historical. To make this connection, however, confuses what it means for something to be religiously true. When a typical Mormon gets up in a testimony meeting and says, “I know that the Book of Mormon is true,” she is not referring to the historicity of the scriptures, but rather she is testifying about the role that the Book of Mormon plays in her life. When she says it is from God, she is saying that it inspires her, gives her answers to existential questions, gives her hope, comforts her, and etc. Her testimony is about the role of God in her life and how the scriptures help mediate that role. It is not is a simply stated proposition or statement of fact. She does not get up and say, “I know that Nephi built a boat in the sixth-century before Christ.” That says as much about the book’s divine origin as does her saying “I know that Jesus was crucified” says anything about the Christ’s forgiveness of her sins. As D.Z. Phillips writes, “[T]o appropriate a religious belief is not to describe it, but to confess it. It is to worship the divine, or to say ‘Thou art God.’ This is not an expression of a belief whose truth depends on whether it tallies with the fact. The confession is the confession of a truth; an acknowledgement of God, or an acknowledgement of the divine.”[15]
Thus far, Mormon apologetics has been guilty of friendly fire in that it sets up presumptuous expectations for historical verification that become standard measures of the scriptures’ truth and divine origin—standards which should not be expected given the nature of the texts. However, unnecessary potential defeaters for the scriptures are not the only shape that this friendly fire takes. By attempting to uphold and offer an empirical defense and/or verification for the scriptures, the apologists threaten the very spiritual nature and intent of the scriptures they are defending. Reflecting on Jesus’ question to Peter, “Whom say ye that I am?” and Peter’s response (Matthew 16:13-17), Phillips writes that Peter’s answer was a spiritual confession that arose from God and not from any sort of empirical investigation. Comparing Peter’s response to a simple question of arithmetic, Phillips says, “But in spiritual matters there is nothing like an arithmetic to settle them. And what I am insisting on is that if there were, spiritual matters could not have the kind of importance that they do.”[16] The believer bears their testimony on the Book of Mormon because the religious truth of it—the divine origin—is something that they cannot empirically confirm. If it was something that could be verified, as the apologists wish to show, then it is no longer spiritual, it becomes nothing different than a fact in a science book. Phillips continues,
It is in this context that the question “Whom do you say that I am?” has to be faced [or “What is the truth of the scriptures?”]. It makes no sense to speak of “right,” “wrong,” or “the truth of the matter” here outside matters of the spirit. Spiritual matters can only be resolved spiritually, and the search for some extra-spiritual guarantee is misguided, distorting the kind of importance spiritual matters have.[17]

It is for this reason that the Book of Mormon’s own test of verification is spiritual in nature: “if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4; emphasis added). By attempting to confirm or measure by empirical means that which is supposed to be spiritual, the apologists cast friendly fire upon the scriptures by changing their very religious natures.
In conclusion, while the apologists for Mormon scripture may claim that they are not trying to “prove” the truthfulness of the scriptures, their very approaches to these texts are based on an assumption that the historical, and thus divine, authenticity of the texts must be supportable by means of empirical verification. This assumption is problematic due to the revelatory nature of the texts, which may not reflect any verifiable history in themselves other than the nineteenth-century context in which they came forth. By imposing their apologetic assumptions on the text, the apologists are ultimately guilty of friendly fire by creating unnecessary expectations for the scriptures, confusing their religious truthfulness for historical authenticity, and displacing that religious truthfulness with that which is not spiritual.

[1] D.Z. Phillips, Religion and Friendly Fire (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co., 2004), xii.
[2] Thomas Ferguson, “The World’s Strangest Book: The Book of Mormon,” The Millennial Star 118 (February 1956: 42-46. Quoted in Stan Larson, Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon (Herriman, UT: Freethinker Press, 2004), 56. Thomas Ferguson was one of the co-founders of the New World Archaeological Foundation. In many ways a precursor to the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S.), the NWAF received funding at times from the LDS Church to search for proof for the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica. After a failure to discover the evidence he hoped for, Ferguson privately became a skeptic of the Book of Mormon.
[3] Noel B. Reynolds, “Introduction,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, Maxwell Institute website (accessed May 8, 2010).
[4] The simple logical proof would be:
                1. A -> ~H              (if there is an anachronism, then the Book of Mormon is not historical)
                2. A                         (there exists an anachronism)
                C. ~H                       (therefore the Book of Mormon is not historical)
[5] For example, see Latayne Colvett Scott, The Mormon Mirage : a former Mormon tells why she left the church (Grand Rapids : Zondervan Pub. House, 1979), 82.
[6] See Robert R. Bennett, “Barley and Wheat in the Book of Mormon,” Maxwell Institute, (accessed May 10, 2010).
[7] The modus tollens of A -> ~H (if there is an anachronism, then the Book of Mormon is not historical) is ~~H -> ~A (if it is not the case that the Book of Mormon is not historical, then there are no anachronisms).
[8] Larson, Quest for the Gold Plates, 41-70. See also Thomas Ferguson’s books where he pushes this reasoning: Cumorah—Where? (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., 1947); Great Message of Peace and Happiness (Orinda, CA: Sun Lithographing, 1952); One Fold and One Shepherd (Salt Lake City: Olympus Publishing Co., 1962); and with Milton R. Hunter, Ancient America and the Book of Mormon (Oakland, CA: Kolob Book Co., 1950).
[9] For examples, see FARMS publications on the Maxwell Institute’s website
[10] Michael D. Rhodes, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, July 1988, 51–53.
[11] Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), 71-72.
[12] Rhodes, “I Have a Question,” 51–53.
[13]  Richard S. Van Wagoner, ed., The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2009), 4:2033-2034.
[14] Reynolds, “Introduction,” Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited; emphasis added.
[15] Phillips, Religion and Friendly Fire, 85.
[16] Ibid., 95.
[17] Ibid., 98.


  1. Thanks for posting, I'll check it out soon.

  2. Loyd, just got around to reading this. A few random thoughts.

    1) When BY says, "I will even venture to say that if the Book of Mormon were now to be re-written, in many instances it would materially differ from the present translation," I'm not convinced that he's talking about retranslation of the BoM text rather than recomposition. The context seems to suggest composition, as in the preceding statement about the Bible: "Should the Lord Almighty send an angel to re-write the Bible, it would in many places be very different from what it now is."

    2) Sure, some apologists are accepting the possibly-mistaken assumptions that the BoM accurately describes historical events, and that these historical events can be empirically verified, and that the BoM is a reliable translation. But not all of them are accepting all of these assumptions, and even those who do often express some reservations about them. Doesn't it make sense to try out many different sets of assumptions and see which can be the most informative? Or do believers need to maintain some kind of methodological agnosticism about these things? (That would dramatically limit the kinds of questions they could ask, by the way.)

    3) You quoted Phillips as saying, "Spiritual matters can only be resolved spiritually." But this assumes that there is no epistemological overlap between spiritual and empirical things. That may be true for some religious claims and worldviews-- especially if you're a believer in an ontological matter-spirit dualism. But there are many religious claims that have an empirical component, and it seems to me that Mormonism has a particular tendency to merge spirit and matter. So I'm not sure how far I'm really willing to go with Phillips in that regard. (Of course, this is the consummate rational empiricist speaking, so take what I say with a grain of salt!)


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